Dear Most Esteemed and Knowledgeable Kitties:
This is urgent. My 4-year-old female cat threw up and then proceeded to have an excessive amount of saliva on the floor after I cleaned up the vomit. Her nose appears to be pulsating and she growls when you attempt to pick her up, which is not her. She seems lethargic as well. I put her up in her room with the door closed and she isn’t meowing to get out, which is really not her. She eats dry food, refuses to eat wet food. What is wrong with my angel?
Siouxsie: OK, first things first. If your cat is still acting lethargic or her condition has gotten worse — for example, she’s not eating or drinking, she’s hunched up as if she’s in pain, or she’s glassy-eyed and feels hot to the touch — call the vet right now! Vomiting and lethargy can be symptoms of a serious infection or injury, especially when accompanied by growling when touched and/or fever.
Thomas: If her condition has improved and she’s acting more like herself, then read on.
Dahlia: Cats vomit more easily than most animals because the “vomiting centers” in our brains are easily stimulated by irritants or stress.
Siouxsie: When a cat senses the need to vomit she may appear anxious and seek attention or reassurance. You’ll also see the cat begin to salivate and make repeated attempts to swallow. Humans do this, too.
Thomas: This is followed by the typical harsh gagging sound and ejection of the stomach contents. Vomiting is typically followed by more salivation and perhaps episodes of dry-heaving.
Dahlia: The most common cause of vomiting is swallowing hair or some other indigestible material, such as grass, which irritates the stomach. Sometimes cats deliberately eat grass so they can vomit up hairballs or other irritants. Intestinal parasites can also cause vomiting.
Siouxsie: Other reasons cats may vomit include overeating or eating too fast, or exercising right after eating. Sometimes Dahlia does that: she scarfs down her food and then — HURK! — it’s on the floor. Then she eats it again! Ew!
Dahlia: Shut up, Miss Poopy-Bloomers! At least Mama didn’t have to wipe my bum this morning!
Thomas: Anyway … most cats don’t like be picked up before, during, or immediately after vomiting. That’s because their stomachs are upset and vomiting is so very unpleasant!
Dahlia: You can understand more about your cat’s problem by noticing how and when she vomits. Note whether she vomits more than once, and if so, whether it only happens once in a while or if it happens often. How soon after eating does she vomit? Is it projectile vomiting?
Siouxsie: Check the vomitus to see what’s in it. Is there fresh food? A hairball? A foreign object like a bunch of grass or a piece of cloth? Blood?
Thomas: If your cat continues to retch after she vomits and brings up a frothy, clear fluid, then she probably got into spoiled food, has a hairball, or ate grass or some other indigestible thing. Sometimes this persistent vomiting can be associated with a disease that irritates the stomach lining.
Dahlia: If your cat vomits off and on over a period of days or weeks, there doesn’t seem to be any relation to meal times, and the cat is haggard-looking or tired, she may have liver or kidney disease, a heavy worm infestation, or a hairball. A foreign object in the stomach is another possibility.
Siouxsie: There are three vomiting symptoms that are signs of a potential emergency. Those are vomiting blood (either fresh and red or dark like coffee grounds), vomiting feces (which indicates an intestinal blockage), and projectile vomiting (which may indicate anything from a hairball to a complete blockage of the intestinal tract or diseases like encephalitis).
Thomas: If your cat vomits blood or feces, you need to go to the vet right away. If your vet is closed, go to the nearest emergency vet clinic. We mean it! These symptoms indicate a very serious and potentially fatal problem, and treatment can’t wait until your vet is open or you have the money.
Dahlia: If your cat is projectile vomiting, call your vet and see whether they suggest you bring your cat in. If your vet’s office is closed, they may have an answering service that will page your vet or give you the phone number for an emergency clinic. Like your regular vet, the emergency clinic staff will ask you about your cat’s symptoms and then tell you whether or not they think you should bring the cat in.
Siouxsie: Vomiting can also be a symptom of poisoning. If your cat goes outside, this is more likely because they can get into skunk bait or eat a rat that’s eaten poison, or they can get into a toxic substance like antifreeze or motor oil. Indoor-only cats can be poisoned, too, but the likelihood is much lower. Poisoning is an emergency, and any cat that may have ingested poison needs immediate veterinary treatment.
Thomas: But honestly, the vast majority of cat vomiting is caused by hairballs or overly rich foods. If your cat is acting healthy aside from the vomiting — she’s eating and drinking, and she resumes her normal activity level after she’s recovered from the episode — it’s most likely safe to treat the condition at home.
Dahlia: If your cat vomited a hairball, give her a petroleum jelly-based lubricant such as Petromalt or Laxatone to help grease up any remaining hairballs so they can pass through the digestive system. Follow the directions on the package. We don’t recommend giving thes lubricants for a long time because they can interfere with the absorption of several very important vitamins.
Siouxsie: You can prevent or reduce the risk of hairballs in the future by regularly grooming your cat, especially during shedding season. Even short-haired cats need to be groomed so that they don’t swallow excessive hair. There’s a wide range of grooming tools available for cats with all hair types. Here’s a good list of the types of combs and brushes available and their functions.
Thomas: We’re also quite fond of the Furminator. It pulls dead hair out and it works on long-haired and short-haired cats. And it feels nice, too!
Dahlia: We’ve had a lot fewer hairballs since Mama started Furminating us. And our fur is so shiny and beautiful and soft! Purrrrr!
Siouxsie: Whatever the case, if the vomiting persists for more than 24 hours, consult your veterinarian. A veterinary consult is also in order if one or more of the following occurs: 1) vomiting continues even if the cat has received no food or water for several hours; 2) the cat vomits when you re-introduce food and water; 3) the vomiting is accompanied by diarrhea; or 4) the cat shows signs of systemic illness such as lethargy and weakness.
Thomas: Good luck, Lori. Please let us know how things turn out.